Star Gardener: The Native Plant Winners and Sinners

The Garden Club of East Hampton has been playing with plants at the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden
A mosaic of butterfly weed, above, offers pops of orange and yellow in the grounds behind Clinton Academy. Below, a sea of Incrediball hydrangeas were another winner this year. Abby Jane Brody Photos

Before summer slips away and while our memories are fresh, it’s a good idea to take note of the winners, sinners, and those we’re not sure about in this year’s gardens.

The Garden Club of East Hampton has been playing with plants at the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden behind Clinton Academy since it underwent a major renovation in 2003. Our aim is to offer a series of satisfying plant compositions throughout the season from reliable performers that require a manageable amount of maintenance.

It’s been an evolutionary process. This summer we replanted a large portion of the sunny area in strong saturated colors. It’s too soon to know how the new perennials will come through the winter, but here’s a run-down on our successes and failures, the good and the bad in our small patch.

The blazing oranges, yellows, and golds of butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, form the garden’s most riotous display and draw people in from June through July. Our mosaic of color comes from interplanting the yellow and gold cultivar Hello Yellow with the normal orange-flowered species. It may not be easy to locate Hello Yellow, but the results are worth the hunt. Butterfly weed requires full sun and excellent drainage, a perfect combination for naturalistic meadow plantings in lean soil. The downside of butterfly weed is its fertility.  Even with assiduous deadheading, it has imperialistic ambitions, and seedlings, with deep tap roots, crop up throughout the garden. Take note.

My personal favorite of the milkweeds is A. purpurascens, purple milkweed. It may not be flashy or flower as long as butterfly weed, but it has formed a nice clump with intense purple flowers and, perhaps unfortunately, no seedlings. 

Showy swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata ssp. pulchra, was our biggest mistake. We ignored the clue “swamp” in its common name and planted it with the butterfly weed on a sandy mound. The spherical orbs of pink flowers droop and quickly die during even fleeting dry spells.

The second big winner has been the mass planting of Hydrangea arborescens just inside the garden gate. It is in deepshade, a difficult planting site, but we needed something showy and welcoming to attract attention from the street.  Normally the popular Annabelle would have been the default choice, but it has a tendency to flop. We took a chance on a new cultivar, Incrediball, said to have huge mopheads on strong stems that remain upright. We were lucky our gamble paid off, and I recommend Incrediball wholeheartedly. It’s garden centers that are the stumbling block, as they seem stuck in old habits and haven’t changed over to the newer, improved variety.

Good, reliable, and long-blooming spikes of blue or purple flowers are not easy to find for our area, especially if they must be native plants. We tried agastache, but they’ve not taken. The prairie blazing star, Liatris pycnostachya, was supposed to be a good border plant, but after five years and two locations its spires continue to flop and it will be removed. Perhaps our soil is too rich.

The sleeper, and a winner that should be used much more often, is Scutellaria incana. It has upright candelabra-like spikes of violet-blue flowers with white centers and has been flowering since July. A grouping of five or seven plants mid-border is a good foil for the orange, bronze, and red flowers nearby. (If your taste runs more toward pink and white, it is equally effective.) It is easily pleased in full sun or partial shade.

Our experiment toward the hot end of the color spectrum in the sunny section of the garden has pleased most visitors. The cardinal flower, with nearly black foliage and intense red blooms, Lobelia cardinalis Black Truffle, is a traffic-stopper. In front are coneflowers, Echinacea Cheyenne Spirit, a mixture of red, orange, gold, and pink. The new coneflower hybrids in unusual colors have a reputation for not perennializing, but they are so upbeat, we’ll treat them as annuals if necessary.

To the rear is the bright Helenium Moerheim Beauty, which has been flowering since early July. In my home garden it has formed nice clumps in its second year. Heleniums are said to be deer resistant and attractive to butterflies. Even without those attractions they make a good addition to the summer garden.

The bright yellow Coreopsis Full Moon presents a conundrum. It is a reliable flowering machine that self-cleans when the flowers are finished and keeps going from July until cold weather arrives. It’s almost too healthy and generous. You’d never know we broke up the clumps and sent two dozen to the plant sale. Next year a few will be transplanted into the middle of the border, with the remainder going to the plant sale. Full Moon is too good a plant not to make the effort to site it harmoniously; most plants wouldn’t be worth the work.

In shady areas, masses of deciduous azaleas are coming into their own. We had wanted color in the shade beds during July and August when the garden has most visitors. The plumleaf azalea, Rhododendron prunifolium, with orange flowers, and the hybrid Rhododendron Millenium, with red flowers, were recommended as the two best for our region. As the azaleas mature, become bushier and covered more densely with blooms, these areas will be linked more closely to the flower-packed sunny border.

What’s next?  All that seems missing from the garden is fragrance, to engage all the senses. Nothing that a few strategically placed clethra can’t provide.

New hybrid coneflowers, Cheyenne Spirit. Abby Jane Brody Photos
Spikes of Scutellaria incana
Very late flowering plum leaf azalea